After prison, Syrian journalist documents abuses against detainees: ‘I can’t forget anyone inside’

Shiyar Khalil was once the subject of several human rights campaigns to free him from one of Syria’s most notorious prisons. Today, he is a journalist and rights activist documenting rights abuses against prisoners in Syria, and has assisted with research for recent Amnesty International reports on torture and human rights abuses in regime facilities.

As part of his work, Khalil connected former detainees, with human rights researchers for Amnesty International’s unprecedented 3-D video reconstruction of Saydnaya prison that was released last year.

The investigation into Saydnaya, located outside Damascus, took 12 months, and involved interviewing former prisoners over and over to corroborate their accounts. Khalil, a former journalist, was tasked with recruiting his fellow Syrians to share personal experiences of life and death in prison.

The Amnesty report details chilling “extermination” methods employed by those in charge at Saydnaya, including mass executions and systematic physical and psychological torture, episodes that echo Khalil’s own experience in regime prison.

"I can still so vividly remember each and every one of those faces that I met in prison,” he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssatter Ibrahim from France, where he has lived since fleeing Syria in 2015.

“They gave me a message to carry forth, to never forget them inside those moldy, rotten basements.”

 Shiyar Khalil appears on Syrian state television, where he was forced to confess to terrorism and other charges in March 2014. Photo courtesy of Shaam News Network.

At least 17,723 Syrians were killed “in government custody” from March 2011 to December 2015, according to the February 2017 Amnesty International report that Khalil helped compile—on average, 300 detainees killed each month. In Saydnaya alone, as many as 13,000 inmates were executed by hanging just moments after being informed of their fates, the report found. Others starved to death, or died of hypothermia or disease. Some simply wasted away, too depressed to go on eating their food rations.

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has categorically denied the report’s findings, dismissing evidence of torture as “propaganda” and “fake news” in an interview last month with Yahoo News.

Q: Today, you document prisoners’ rights abuses in Syria via the Working Group for Syrian Detainees, which you co-founded in 2015. You also played a role in compiling the recent Amnesty International report on Saydnaya prison. In your own experience, you were held in Adra prison, and not Saydnaya—how were you able to help researchers gather information on what is going on in Saydnaya?

Before the Saydnaya report, I acted as a witness [for other reports on prisoner abuse] and provided information on the various torture methods used by the Syrian government.

My role [in the Saydnaya report] was to provide key witnesses. [For example], one of the witnesses featured in the Saydnaya report was the former detainee Shibal Ibrahim, who is now a member of the Working Group for Syrian Detainees.

Shibal Ibrahim is a well-known activist and one of the founders of the Union of Young Kurds.

[Ed.: Government intelligence (known in Arabic as mukhabarat) officers arrested Shibal Ibrahim, an ethnic Kurd and a human rights activist, from his home in Qamishli in September 2011. Four months later, Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal for his release, designating him a “prisoner of conscience” and expressing concern for his health. Shortly afterward, Syrian authorities transferred him to Saydnaya prison, where he remained until his release in May 2013, according to an interview last month with Kurdish news website Kurd Street. In last month’s Amnesty International report, Ibrahim recalls the sounds of beatings and torture as prison guards rounded up his fellow detainees for execution. He now lives in Germany.]

Q: The Saydnaya report and accompanying videos went into extreme detail describing the system of executions and torture inside Saydnaya, including mass hangings, sexual abuse and starvation—just to name a few. How do the experiences of prisoners in Saydnaya differ from your own experience in Adra prison? As a former detainee yourself, was it difficult to revisit other detainees’ stories?

Each facility has its own unique methods of killing and torturing inmates, and they all differ from Saydnaya.

But Saydnaya prison has an especially big reputation for carrying out executions within its walls. 

I am in touch with my friends who were also prisoners and managed to get out. By the virtue of my work, I meet new people every day who remind me of those who still remain inside. I can’t forget anyone from inside, nor do I have any desire to. 

There are so many cases that I can’t forget, that I live with every single night. I can still picture those women, children and the elderly. I can still remember my friend who I met as a prisoner who is now one of so many who has gone missing while imprisoned by the regime.

 Shiyar Khalil, before detainment. Photo courtesy of Freedom for the Journalist Shiyar Khalil.

Q: Can you tell me more about the work that your organization, the Working Group for Syrian Detainees, is doing right now to fight for prisoners’ rights? Do you ever document human rights abuses against Syrian detainees held by non-state actors?

We mainly document abuses by the regime and its affiliated militias. We are also documenting the crimes of Jabhat a-Nusra [now Jabhat Fatah a-Sham] and various Islamist extremist factions, in addition to violations carried out by the Kurdish Self-Administration in the areas under the control of the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Right now we are also working on several reports about female and child detainees.

Q: You personally spent more than two years in regime custody, including in the notorious “Palestine Branch” facility in Damascus, as well as in the nearby Adra civilian prison. As someone who has lived through imprisonment and torture, what do you want to achieve through your work? Are you working towards a sort of justice? What does justice mean for prisoners, and for you, in your opinion?

I’m trying to achieve justice for all Syrians, especially prisoners.

Justice for Syrians means that people will be held accountable and criminals will be prosecuted, starting with Bashar al-Assad and, ultimately, all criminals including the regime’s many militias and Islamic extremist organizations. Justice means moving Syria in the direction of a state that is inclusive for all people, no matter who you are or where you fall on the political spectrum.  

Q: You were arrested by mukhabarat officers in 2013, while at a Damascus café with several other journalists and activists. What happened after you were arrested?

Things were incredibly difficult after we were arrested, especially because we were held by the Palestine Branch, which has a particularly infamous reputation.

[Ed.: Military Intelligence Branch 235, located in Damascus and known more commonly as the “Palestine Branch” is one of the Syrian government’s most feared detention facilities. Several former detainees recall torture, beatings and other mistreatment at the facility in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.]

During this time, we were arbitrarily subjected to beatings and to torture both by members of the Palestine Branch and by the very investigators supposedly in charge of our case. We were accused of everything from committing acts of terrorism to financing and promoting terrorism, all because of our work in media and politics, which opposed the Assad regime.

I was held in a room that measured no more than three by four meters, along with 110 other detainees of various ages. During this time we were systematically tortured. We were given such little food that we were made to starve, and our health and well-being were deliberately neglected. We were essentially living in a mass grave. We never knew what would happen to us; all we knew was that we could die at any second, whether that was from hunger, sickness or torture.

Q: Almost a year after you were arrested, authorities forced you to confess to terrorism and other charges on Syrian state television. How did it feel to confess to crimes you had no involvement in? What was your reaction when you saw that one of your former coworkers was filming the confession? 

I was transferred from the Palestine Branch to Adra Prison. A few months later, I was taken by the Criminal Security Branch, who said that I was facing new charges. They seized some of my personal items, including my hard drive and other equipment containing reports that I filmed in opposition to Assad.                  

I was tortured and forced to appear on Syrian state television, where I had to confess to being a terrorist and fabricating news against the Assad regime. They made me send that report to opposition outlets as well.

Frankly, after suffering through so much torture, all I wanted was for the filming to end and to go back to Adra Prison, so I said what they told me to say, word for word.

As for my friend who works for the TV station and who filmed me, no, I wasn’t surprised to see him. All I felt was pity because he’s still working as a tool in the hands of the regime. They do what they want with him. I saw how he was shaking when he was filming. I still remember the look on his face well.

Q: You were released from prison in May 2015. How did you end up leaving Syria?

There were a number of international organizations—like Amnesty International—that called for my release from Adra. I ended up leaving quite suddenly one day; it was a surreal experience, indescribable really. I remember walking out of those huge prison doors and seeing the farms of a-Rehan in Douma right in front of Adra.

On the way to Damascus, there was destruction all around me on the sides of the road by Harasta. I vividly remember being unable to hold back my tears after seeing all that destruction after two and a half years of imprisonment.

I hid in Damascus for 15 days, after which I was able to illegally board a flight from Damascus to the Qamishli airport. I stayed there for several days and was then able to escape into Turkey.

Q: Talk about what it is like to be the one writing the reports on prisoner issues rather than being the subject of them. 

International organizations play a very defined role in terms of documenting, monitoring and investigating violations. However, as a Syrian, my feelings may be different from their own whenever I help these organizations prepare reports.

The reason is that with every word, with every mention of an arrest or the death of someone in detention, I experience a flood of memories of every single name from my own experience. I can still so vividly remember each and every one of those faces that I met in prison. They gave me a message to carry forth, to never forget them inside those moldy, rotten basements.

Q: If you could go back in time—to the beginning of the revolution—would you have participated in it or would you have changed your position? After all these years have passed, how do you view the revolution?

Revolutions don’t die. I will keep fighting for my own dignity and the dignity of other Syrians so that we can obtain our freedom. Afterwards, all of us who faced injustice [over the course of the war] will start rebuilding our country.

The future is very foggy. Various countries around the world are the ones in control of the situation in Syria, leaving the Syrians themselves with little say in the matter. And yet, Syrians are the ones who end up paying the price. Still, this will not prevent us from our struggle for humanitarian values in Syria, including our dignity and the human freedom that comes along with it.

I miss Damascus greatly, and I miss my friends who were imprisoned alongside me. I am convinced that someday I will return to a Damascus that has no dictatorial regime.

With translation by Chloë Walton 

 

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.